Monday, December 29, 2014

"Sing lullaby" Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Innocents, Coventry Cathedral, 28th December 2014

I’m must have been about 6 when I first opened my father’s copy of the Oxford Book of Carols and started trying to pick out tunes on the piano…and I hadn’t got very far in the book when I stopped to fall in love, from the first time I heard it, with number 22, the Coventry Carol. That such a beautiful haunting lullaby could have its roots in the violence of the slaughter of the innocents seemed extra-ordinary, and somehow the carol and an early visit here to this Cathedral entwined themselves in my memory so that the ruins of the old Cathedral became, in my imagination, the backdrop for the act of violence and terror which we remember today.

It’s a sudden change of tone, isn’t it...One moment we are celebrating the birth of Our Lord and Saviour and all is golden splendour, angel fanfares and great joy – and then, overnight, the mood changes. Cradle and grave come very close, as we remember those whom the early church called the Companions of Christ, Stephen, first Christian martyr, John the Evangelist – and, today, the Holy Innocents. The light of lights has dawned, but the surrounding darkness is real and oppressive . Christ is born into a world of violence and pain – and though through him all things can find redemption, nonetheless the pain here and now is real, the grief overwhelming.

This year, the Spectator magazine caused some controversy by producing a striking Christmas card that showed the Holy Family, Mary, Joseph, Infant – and star – set against the backdrop of a bombed out modern city. Bleak, even desolate, but surely a more honest reflection of the reality of his birth in poverty in an occupied country where mass murder was used as a way to keep order.
Christmas, you see, is complicated – and it’s when we try to oversimplify, to focus on sentimental images of mother and child, that we run the risk of losing sight of its reality. There is a poem that begins “Christmas is really for the children”, going on to explore the discrepancy between the image of Little Jesus, sweetly asleep and the fate that awaits the Son of God outside Jerusalem just 33 years later…but the signs of what is to come are there from the beginning. Christmas is SUPPOSED to be discomforting – what else can you expect when God throws in His lot with humanity, in order to redeem and transform it. It was never going to be a walk in the park.

And so a darker reality unfolds before us. Feeling threatened by some unknown king to come, Herod arrives on stage full of hatred and violence, a pantomime villain intent on real harm. If Christ is the new Adam, we have a new Cain in Herod - who dashes the skulls of the innocents against the rocks of fear and distrust. Evil exists in the world and it will stop at nothing in its attempts to thwart the loving purposes of the God who comes to make his home with us.
It’s hard to deal with, isn’t it?
We’d much prefer to look away, to avoid reminders of the hard truth of human cruelty. For those toddlers in Bethlehem there is no happy ending. What Herod stole cannot be replaced…and the lament of the mothers of Jerusalem echoes through the centuries, joined today by the cries of the mothers of Peshawar and beyond. Not even the sweetest lullaby can mask the truth. These children are dead, not sleeping…
But despite the tragic fragility of life, there is resilience too. The Christ-child survives…I dont mean by this that his survival makes all the pain and bloodshed OK...indeed, his survival might seem to add to the tragic injustice if we didnt know what lay ahead for him too. Theres a carol that plots our journey well
Sing lullaby...lullaby baby now reclining sing lullaby. Angels are watching, stars are shining over the place where he is lying
Sing lullaby...lullaby baby now a sleeping...Soon will come sorrow with the morning, soon will come bitter grief and weeping
Sing lullaby....lullaby baby now a dozing....soon comes the cross the nails the piercing then in the grave at last reposing
He will go through it too. There are no shortcuts. At the foot of the cross His mother will join with her tears with those of the mothers of Bethlehem. Spared in infancy, Jesus nonetheless experiences a bloody death that he deserved no more than those baby boys. His is not a protected,sanitised route through life... That would have been no help at all. Ultimately, of course, his birth, death and resurrection are a triumphant declaration that nothing is ever lost or wasted,
That carol concludes 
Sing lullaby..lullaby is the babe awaking? Hush do not stir the infant king dreaming of Easter, gladsome morning, conquering death, its bondage breaking...
Beyond the darkness there awaits a day break we can scarcely imagine.
But nonetheless its right, I think, that Rachel refuses to be comforted...Looking towards an ultimate restoration doesn't negate the immediacy of grief.
So...what do we do with this remembrance of deep wounds that are recreated too often in the course of human history?
As for me I will hold on to the certainty that all history is God's story, the God who weeps with Rachel even as He holds her little ones in love , the one whose own body is broken, his own blood spilled for us, the one who promises to wipe all tears from our eyes.
My first Christmas as a priest I struggled with the realisation that, having placed the image of the Christ child reverently in the manger at midnight mass, I was then called to break his body at the altar, so that the first violence committed against him was at my hands. But then I looked beyond the moment to the great sweep of redemption history, pondering the miracle of love that places itself, vulnerable, in our that we might share eternal life. Cradle,cross and grave go side by side...because Christ shares the whole of our experience so that it might be redeemed.
So remember the Holy Innocents of every age, weep for them by all means, for honest lament is a part of all real relationship with God, but do not let the darkness of the world oppress you.
Remember the Holy Innocents are called the Companions of Christ and companions are those who break bread together.... And this is the bread of life,given for all. Let us come to share it.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Sermon for BBC Coventry & Warwickshire Carol Service, recorded in Coventry Cathedral on Saturday 20th December 2014

What's your favourite Christmas advert?

My Facebook friends seem pretty keen on Magic & Sparkles – though that may just be because they are hoping to win something amazing...

Perhaps you prefer the lonely, love-sick penguin?

Or what about football – and chocolate?

Or you may have another preference altogether – but I can't help wondering what those adverts would say to a random alien, should such a being land in Coventry today and question what all the fuss was about...


There are an awful lot of very busy people, clearly getting ready for something – but what – and why, oh WHY?


Actually, you know, all those adverts are onto something despite themselves.

I don't mean that Christmas is really all about deciding where to spend our hard-earned cash – of course I don't – but if you pause for a moment to think about the themes of those high-profile adverts, you might just find yourself surprisingly close to the truth


Let's start with the famous Christmas truce in the trenches, that moment when the guns were stilled and the sound of that carol we've just sung together floated in the air over No Man's Land. Of course the experience of Christmas 1914 was about so much more than football – or even chocolate...

It was about a moment when peace and reconciliation became a reality, right there on the battlefield...a brief reminder that the baby whose birth this world-wide party celebrates was born to teach us how to live lives of generous humanity, lives in which the “me first” agenda that leads to war is set aside as we put others first and seek the best for everyone.

That brief moment of transformation 100 years ago was, and remains, evidence that the birth of Jesus did make a difference..., though we're distressingly slow at getting the message.


We know that the Christmas truce happened during the War to end Wars...but just 21 years after it ended, we were at it again, and though this Cathedral stands as an sign of hope and peace, it is only here because of more pain, more destruction.

The trouble is, we just can't seem to get it right ourselves,

I'm confident that if I asked for a show of hands in favour of peace on earth, there'd be a 100% response here – but it's not our lived reality, try as we might. That baby born in an occupied country without a proper home has much to say to the children of 21st century Palestine whose parents have to negotiate armed checkpoints to get to work...while those grieving mothers whose lament we know as the Coventry Carol share their heart-song with the mothers of Peshawar.


It seems we just cannot break the cycle – so we must turn to something a lot more effective than either magic or sparkles – nothing less, in fact, than REAL LOVE

Love – so unshakeable and unbounded that no matter what we say or do, no matter how often or how badly we mess up, love never gives up on us.


THAT'S the point – the point of all the celebrations, cards, and candles...try as we might to bury it under piles of presents or disguise it with wrapping paper and tinsel.

At the heart of all we are about in this season of Christmas is a real live baby – a baby who is God in a manger, God throwing His lot in with creation so he can teach us how live and love fully.

We have sung about “Our Lord Emmanuel” - and Emmanuel is the name that sums up  Christmas , for it means. God with us.

God with us in the midst of our mess and muddle, our fear and failure as much as God with us in the joy of a happy family, the excitement of a full Cathedral.

God with us today – in our hearts, and our lives, if we are willing to open them to him.


Though more than 2000 years have passed since that night in the stable in Bethlehem, the light that shone there continues to light up the darkness of our world – and we share it whenever we choose the way of Real Love, instead of selfishness, pride and greed, whenever our lives and our actions proclaim “Emmanuel...God with us”


You see, Christmas is about a new world here and now...something we can, with God's help, live into as we try to make a difference in our turn by everyday kindness, - the sort of kindness that volunteers at the night shelter, donates to the food-bank, fills a carrier bag with Christmas treats for a refugee family...

God with us – the secret ingredient that transforms as magic and sparkle never can.


Sometimes it seems to me that Christmas is a bit of a battle between the views represented by two popular carols. It's your choice which you go with (though of course you can go on singing them both!)

On the one hand, AWAY in a manger puts Jesus at arms length...presents the Christ-child as an unreal baby who never cries and has to be begged to love who is neither really human nor properly divine, but rather a soft-focus creation designed for Christmas cards.

I want of none of that.

In contrast, O Little Town of Bethlehem ends by inviting that child to be born in us – Emmanuel- God with us, touching each of us with that Real Love that changes us from the inside out, so that we too can shine as lights in the darkness.



Wednesday, December 17, 2014

What a difference a year makes

Last Advent was unlike any other I'd experienced.
I learned in mid November that I had been short-listed for a post at Coventry Cathedral - and that the interviews were, of all bizarre things, being held in the week before Christmas...that week when every parish in the country is crammed to the gunwhales with school carol services, Christingles, nativities...and 1001 over-excited children.

Convention and common sense both demand that you don't tell your parishioners that you are going for a job interview. The obvious disruption and alarm that arises at any thought of the vicar leaving may be completely unnecessary - with 5 of us being interviewed, and with far less experience than I believed necessary for a Cathedral job, I was pretty convinced that this was fundamentally a training exercise - practice in preparing papers, an opportunity to engage with the interview process for a senior job and the beginnings of a gentle nudge towards considering moving on from a parish that I loved, and still love, dearly - and where I had envisaged staying at least until 2016.
So - I would have to vanish without explanations, leaving my curate and associate colleagues (who were in the loop) to cover for me. I hated those weeks before the interviews, weeks in which on one level I carried on absolutely as usual, while doing all I could to prepare...(with the help of a kind and generous friend who coached and encouraged me, helping me refine my presentation til it was as good as I could make it). And of course, even though I was utterly sure that I would not be appointed, the shadow of "What if..." hung over December too. This MIGHT be my last Advent here. Of course it wouldn't be. But it might...

Then came the 2 days of interview, beginning with a hyped-up version of trial by quiche which saw all of us subjected to the bishop's Christmas drinks party for diocesan and Cathedral staff...Dozens of strangers, all talking enthusiastically to their friends...Who were the other candidates? Would it matter if I admitted to catholic leanings over mincepies with an evangelical archdeacon? Why was the only person I knew in the room my possible future boss, and thus the person I should spend least time talking to?

I came out of that experience somewhat shaken, but with a sense that there were some really likeable people working in Coventry, whom I had enjoyed meeting - and that sense persisted and grew as the process continued. We were an all women shortlist, which made for a much more positive and supportive dynamic than I'd experienced before. At one point towards the end of the first day, after we had all given our presentations and done a bit of exploring of the Cathedral, we agreed that, as we all got on quite well, we'd be happy to do a 5 way job share - not something I could imagine having dreamed up in more consciously competitive situations.

And that night I had a tasty supper with a friend, who walked me through the streets of Coventry for a while til I told her to stop because something very odd was going on and I could feel myself falling in love with the place...and I knew I wasn't going to get the job so I wanted to stop before it was too late....

And I sort of slept in my hotel room, and sort of didn't...and got to the Cathedral FAR too early the next morning so spent some peaceful time in the ruins, where God was waiting for me. God, surprisingly, didn't seem to be at all worked up about the process, but told me to go in and have a good sing at the staff Christmas service. So in I trotted obediently - to find that, half way through singing Coventry Carol, I knew that though I was CERTAIN NOT TO GET THE JOB a bit of me belonged in Coventry and always would.

Then I preached my homily on the readings for the day, was lightly grilled by the panel, and sent on my way...feeling that it had been a wonderful experience, that I had loved the people I had met, and that there was not a snowball's chance in hell of my ever seeing them again.

And then, that night, the bishop phoned! And, to be honest, I was so utterly startled when he offered me the job that I was actually silent for a good 20 seconds...
But you see, those two days were all about God showing me that I could belong there. Even the things I messed up were part of the learning process. The carefully polished homily I wrote originally had to be ditched in favour of a last-minute dash because I had assumed the readings would be from the Eucharistic lectionary, even though they were listed there on the page in front of me - and only discovered on the Monday, with interviews on Tuesday and Wednesday...but actually, the re-write was perfectly OK, and taught me that perhaps I am a marginally better preacher than I generally believe myself to be...something it's good to realise before you contemplate the pulpit at Coventry. 

What God didn't do was prepare me for the awfulness of going through a parish Christmas when you are the only person who knows that you will be announcing your departure in the New Year. I felt like an adulterous spouse. All the joys of a full church, of once-a-year regulars saying "See you next Christmas Kathryn", the delight of a scratch choir singing Bethlehem Down rather beautifully, the excited squeals of small people at our Christingle workshop decorating the tree...all of that was lived out against the background music of farewell. I loved St Matthew's and telling my family there that I was leaving them was one of the hardest things I have ever done. year on, was it worth it? 
It has been both harder and more rewarding, more different from and more similar to parish life than I had imagined. The obvious gifts and joys - colleagues, music, the Cathedral itself - continue to delight me. The things I knew I'd struggle with continue to baffle and perturb (budgets, anyone?)
Advent is hard this year too, -because I miss the busy hubbub of community life, the same endless round of school services and OAP tea parties that were the backdrop to my waiting last year. I miss the funerals too - that sense of holding a light for the family as they gaze anxiously into the darkness....
But, half way through the staff carol service this morning I looked around me once again and realised these are my people, this is my place for now. 
And I was glad.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

"Sent to bear witness" A homily for Advent 3 B for 8.00 at Coventry Cathedral

I left it rather late to walk the dog yesterday.
It was already dark by the time we left the house and headed down to the park...As you might have guessed from the temperature, it was a very clear night so we had a good view of the moon, shining brightly to light our way.
But the amazing thing about the moon, of course, is that of itself it has no light at all.
It shines only with the reflected light of the sun.
If that light were extinguished, the moon itself would shine no more.

And here John the Baptist stands as the moon, to the sun that is Jesus.
He was not that light, but was sent to bear witness to that light….
He bore witness because he too shone with reflected glory….and he was in no doubt that his role in the gospel was not centre stage.
His calling was to be a sign, pointing the way to Jesus.
We too share his calling to reflect the light of Christ and to so shine that others can see the way…

There was a man sent from God whose name was John.
Not much of an introduction, but then John was not one who cared about such things. He stepped out of his priestly heritage, shrugged off the wonders that surrounded his own birth.
You could imagine him saying, again and again “It’s not about me”.
John was quite happy with a life of wandering in the wilderness, rough, unfashionable clothes, basic food, and an unshakeable, uncompromising message.

Uncompromising, but compelling.
So compelling that people assumed that he must be the Messiah, and were completely nonplussed when John said,
That silences the questioners for a moment, but then they are off again.
Well, if it’s not you, where IS the Messiah? He must be close, if prophets like you are abroad.”
"He is here. He is among you," says John.
And that was almost as startling as anything that had gone before.
Imagine, you have been waiting and watching for the Messiah all your life long, your people have looked for him for centuries, and now you are told that he’s hear among you already. Surely not…
The Messiah arriving unrecognised? Unthinkable…

But John is insistent, absolutely confident in that he has heard God aright, and that he knows his own place in God’s
Thus he can say, with no false modesty,
"I am the voice crying in the wilderness…Just as Isaiah told you, the day of the Lord is coming – prepare yourselves for it".

John´s message is compelling,
He believes it himself and is wholly committed to his task, in the tradition of the great Old Testament prophets.
He stands alongside Isaiah, crying in the wilderness, and his words have authority because, of course, he points away from himself and towards Jesus.

He is the moon, not the sun, remember..
"Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal."
And this is the mark of all those who aspire to preach the true Gospel.
We must remember always that the Gospel is all about Jesus, the Jesus who took as his mission statement, when he preached in the synagogue at Nazareth, these very words of Isaiah.
The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach the gospel..”
John points to Jesus, and Jesus comes, not with a teaching which would imprison us with fear, not with words which would tie us up in knots, but with tidings of great joy and unconditional love.

As the way is made straight, as our lives are put right, so we can know that the good news of hope and freedom is for us as well. This is the promise we hear in Isaiah.
"He has sent me to bring the good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted; to proclaim liberty to captives and release to the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord´s favour." "to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning."

Isn’t that fabulous?
No wonder that this 3rd Sunday of Advent is Gaudete Sunday, a day for rose vestments and pink candles, a day when all we can do is rejoice...for joy overflows here.
Those words from Isaiah are both the mission statement for Our Lord, and our mission statement too.
The Church exists to invite humanity into the freedom Christ brings – a freedom that excludes nobody...
for the gospel is liberation, justice and joy.
Not hierarchy but equality and inclusion.
Not fear but security hope and love.

So, today let us take John as our model, and share his task as we witness to Christ in our loves, our words, our actions...To speak good news and to BE good news as well

To point to Christ, knowing that any light we may bear is reflected from him…

There was a man (or woman) sent from God, whose name was ...

May God strengthen us as we witness to the Good News each day.

(Reworking a sermon from my 1st year in Cainscross...which still says what I need to remember in this season and every season)

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Advent thoughts for Cathedral Praise Advent 2 2014 Mark 1:1-8

A couple of years ago I asked the children at my local school what we called the weeks leading up to the birth of Jesus.
A forest of hands shot up...but as often happens with children, when I asked the first few what their answer might be they had forgotten what they planned to say.
I gave them a clue...”It begins with Ad...”
Instant answer “Christmas Advertising, Mother Kathryn”

Highly entertaining...but also a bit of a reality check, because Advent, really, demands quite a lot of us. Those 4 weeks of preparation to celebrate Christ's birth should involve us in a lot of inner preparation too. It's not all shopping lists, tricky decisions about round robin letters or even filling the freezer.
Advent, traditionally, is the time when we're encouraged to think about Christ's coming at the end of time, as well as his coming as the baby of Bethlehem...the time when we ponder the four last things...Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell
Hard work, then....
but our reading this evening, the one set for today in Anglican churches all over the world, talks about good news.
Mark is the most immediate, hard-hitting of the evangelists – so it's typical of him that we are plunged straight into action from the very first word of his gospel

The beginning of the good news...

How wonderful
How exciting
A bit like getting a mysterious parcel that you just KNOW will contain something amazing
Good news...
Wow rip off a corner of the paper and see


Something old...something familiar....something maybe a little bit confusing.

The beginning of the good news seems to have its roots embedded in the deep past – in the words of Isaiah....

A voice cries out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.

A voice ...shouting....issuing a command, it seems...a command to change the landscape of the world here and now...
Is that good news?
How do you feel when confronted with huge changes?
Excited – enthusiastic?
Or anxious and reluctant?
Typically, human beings don't seem to enjoy change that much...but this is THE BEGINNING OF THE GOOD NEWS, remember...

Of course there is some reassurance here.
We're preparing the way of the Lord....the path that our that God will surely use...the royal road made ready just for him, -
but before he comes to us along that highway there will need to be something very much like an earthquake. Nothing will ever be the same again, - this is more than a little gentle landscaping for roads aren’t built without a dramatic effect on the countryside. Whenever a new motorway or ring road is proposed, the press is full of stories of protestors anxious not to see valleys and hills levelled, and the natural contours altered beyond recognition. No matter that a greater good may be evident, - perhaps an historic market town will be freed from the impact of streams of heavy goods vehicles, threatening the foundations of houses that have stood for centuries. Despite this, we’re reluctant to opt for change, - we don't know what it will look like, and the unknown is always alarming

But God can't come to us, it seems, until the paths are straight, the way ahead clear...

Such, then, is the message of John the Baptist...for it is he to whom Isaiah has been pointing, the herald in the wilderness whose message offers both challenge and hope.

He's such an extraordinary figure.
A wild man striding towards us out of the desert...beginning Mark's gospel without any preliminary niceties...bringing us straight up against our need to do some serious work if we want to be ready for the coming of the Lord.
The unexpected child of worthy, religious parents, from the moment his name was chosen
(John – not Zechariah...JOHN!) he steps aside from their respectable heritage, chooses another path, claims a heritage with the prophets of old.
Dressed like Elijah he calls his listeners back to their roots, reminds them of their ancient covenant with God.
A man on the edge, he chooses to live and minister miles away from civilisation, yet draws crowds from all over the country.
A radical voice he brings new meaning to familiar religious custom, exhorting his hearers, one and all, to prepare.Prepare!
Clear away the rubbish, strip out the dead wood, straighten the twisted, distorted pathways of your heart,
The Lord is coming!
Prepare and repent!

That's his message for us today, as we make our journey along the Advent road...
That good news package we were so eager to open earlier involves us in some serious changes...

We need to change, to repent because the kingdom of heaven is arriving.

That's why the liturgical colour for this season is purple or blue...the colours of repentance
Because Advent is a season for penitence
Now is the time for us to recognise the ways in which our lives are off course and to turn again.....
It's the only way
You can’t set things right if you don’t admit first that they are wrong.
The trouble is that most of us really hate doing that.
We don’t like to feel
guilty or ashamed – feelings that almost always go with owning up to sin and
In fact we’ll often do almost anything to avoid those feelings...
The structure of the Anglican service of Holy Communion encourages us in this process, by including a short act of penitence as we begin our worship – but I sometimes doubt if any of us really engages with that.
We feel safer staying hidden...even if we know deep down that hiding is impossible in the face of the God to whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hid
But, you know, it's vital that we come out of hiding.
If our relationship with God isn’t based on honesty then it is not going to get very far...and wonderfully, the more we are willing and able to be honest to God, the more we realise that it is SAFE to come out of hiding, safe to be ourselves, safe to present ourselves to God, warts and all...

which is surely the beginning of the Good News, right enough!

But we seem determined to fight it, somehow. People are complicated, aren't we?
With good news there in black and white, we struggle to believe it....because so often, we fear that repentance is pointless, because we're stuck with the destructive patterns of behaviour...Often we find it hard to repent, hard even to acknowledge there is anything to repent of, because deep down we think there is nothing that can be done about it anyway. We think that it’s unforgiveable, irreparable. No wonder we want to hide it. We are afraid it would overwhelm us if it came up into the light. We claim to believe in God, but actually we don’t. We only believe in us, in our own ability to set ourselves straight.
If we can’t think of a way to deal with our sin, we assume that God won’t be able to either, so it is best to keep it all firmly under wraps and hope it stays that way.

But one of the great Advent themes is Judgement...that moment when the secrets of all hearts are laid bear...
Is that good news?
It certainly need not be something to fear.

Listen to some words from Rowan Williams
God forbid we say no we can’t cope with the truth, we’d prefer our own darkness. And so part of our self-examination during Advent is looking into ourselves and saying, ‘Well can I get myself to the point where I can look at God and say well there’s truth and there’s beauty and light and love and it’s painful for me, weak and stupid though I am, to face that, and yet I’d rather be there with the truth, however much it costs, than be locked up with myself?’
During Advent, we try to get ourselves a bit more used to the truth - the truth about ourselves, which is not always very encouraging, but the truth about God above all which is always encouraging. The One who comes will come with a great challenge. It will be like fire on the earth as the Bible says. And yet the One who comes is coming in love. He’s coming to set us free. And that’s something well worth waiting for.

So – this Advent parcel really does contain good news. It isn’t that we are just fine and dandy as we are. It is that God is not defeated by our sin – not even by the sins of those who nail Jesus to the cross. The love and forgiveness that seems quite beyond us – to give or to receive - is not out of God’s reach at all.

We just need to recognise ourselves as the flawed and failing people that we have the courage to engage with the road-works, to prepare the way in our hearts and our lives and then.....well, then the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all people will see it together.
Good news indeed.

Thanks be to God!

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Learning reconciliation - Berlin tales part 1

Last week was nothing less than extraordinary. I was given the opportunity to accompany some of the Coventry curates to Berlin, to explore a contextual theology of reconciliation...and am not sure when I last learned so much in the inside of 5 days. Colleagues were predictably sceptical about the working nature of the trip, given that we were due to arrive on the same day that the city's Christmas markets opened - but though we did indeed have a wonderful time buying Christmas decorations and sipping gluhwein, the things that I've brought home are rather more demanding and important, as I grow into my ministry in this Cathedral. 

You see, since June I've been here in Coventry, where the reconciliation story is a constant theme, where we pray the Litany of Reconciliation every day, where I walk past, or through, the ruins of the bombed cathedral en route to pretty much any meeting...And it has been easy - EASY - to buy into the concept while safe at home. It's very easy indeed to be generous if you are the victor...almost as easy as it is to be magnanimous when you are the injured party.
Our ruins, beloved and beautiful as they are, might almost be seen as a passport to self-satisfaction, as if they tempted us to say "Look what they did to us - and yet we can still forgive".

To arrive in Berlin and see something of the other half of the equation, the damage we caused, the ruined church that our bombers destroyed - this requires a change of gear. It may seem obvious, but for me this was a real moment of truth....

Suddenly there is real repentance needed, for there is no possibility of evading the knowledge that we are indeed equal partners in the destructive patterns of behaviour which so badly scar our two cities - and so many others. I can't pretend that we are the nice guys...Do I actually WANT reconciliation, or would I rather run away and pretend I carry no responsibility for the harm that has been done? If I accept my share of the guilt, do I have the energy and commitment to work for a reconciliation that is based on complete honesty about mutual failures.

Yes, the events of WW2 were part of my parents' stories - but there are a thousand other conflicts, great and small, which bedevil the world today. For all my dislike of conflict, my determination to avoid confrontation whenever possible, I know that I can't hide behind a facade of niceness. Whenever I pray the Litany, "Father forgive" is only as real as my acknowledgement of my own guilt.

But please don't imagine that the Berlin experience was a wretched one. Far from it. I learned other things too...That agressor and victim are both really victims if they stay shackled to the past - but that they can support one another to move forward into a future which acknowledges all that has been, but refuses to be defined by it - a future represented for our two cities by the new buildings that share a site with the precious ruins. 

That there is a place where reconciliation becomes deceptively easy for us - because the pain has been borne by someone else. Again in may seem obvious, but when I was given the privilege of presiding at the Eucharist in the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedachtniskirche I found myself offering Christ to women and men whose parents would almost certainly have been fighting mine. As our eyes met at that moment of holy intimacy the discomfort of guilt acknowledged, and the longing to share a better, more Christ-child-like world brought us together and there was no room for anything except deep gratitude, and, yes, the dawnings of love.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sheep, goats and extravagant love - a sermon for the Cathedral Eucharist on the Feast of Christ the King

Whenever we approach this celebration of Christ the King, I'm struck by the irony of a feast established to cement the relationship of the institutional church and an oppressive secular authority, but celebrating a very different kind of rule. The festival originated in a somewhat disquieting pact between Pius XI and the emerging fascist government...but survived because it points to a greater reality. So today we contemplate afresh what it means to live in Christ's kingdom – a kingdom “not of this world” but whose citizens are called to its way of living very much in the here and now. And we've two pieces of prophecy to help us....

In ancient Israel, the language of sheep and shepherd was often applied to kingship. Ezekiel underlines this as he proclaims God's promise to search for the wounded and the straggler in a reunited kingdom– as much as to judge between sheep and sheep. You see, even when following their shepherd, it seems that some sheep just don't care whom they hurt in their search for good pasture...and then the shepherd changes from gentle leader to agent of judgement... who will “feed them with justice”. He can do this because he recognises their motivation for what it is, and is alert to every nuance of their behaviour. This shepherd knows his flock alright – good sheep, bad sheep and goats as well.

But surely there's no real challenge to sorting out sheep from goats. Indeed, when you think in terms of the sheep and goats we know from our own farming landscape, there's no room for confusion. It would be a very dim shepherd indeed who couldn't tell them apart. Sheep are sheep and goats, well goats are different. You can tell by them by the beards, the horns, and the smell.
Can't you? Well, not so much in southern Europe or Asia, where floppy ears and wicked yellow eyes seem common to both groups…
Unless you spend a lot of time with them, it would be hard to tell the difference. And that, I think, is the point.
According to an article in the Jewish Heritage magazine though both sheep and goats could be used in Temple sacrifice, goats were seen as "armed robbers who would jump over people's fences and destroy their plants." While sheep graze at a fairly consistent ground level, goats not only graze at the ground but can also tear leaves, buds, fruit off trees, and notoriously, washing off lines, and are thus far more destructive. But you wouldn't know that unless you got close to them, - close enough to see how they behaved.

And that’s the crux of the story, isn’t it.?

How they behave, How we behave.
Are we sheep, or are we goats?
What do you think?

The American spiritual director and author Dennis Linn was speaking to a group of elderly nuns, and asked
"How many of you, even once in your life, have done what Jesus asks and fed a hungry person, clothed a naked person or visited a person in prison?" All the sisters raised their hands.
Dennis said, "That's wonderful! You're all sheep."
Then Dennis asked, "How many of you, even once in your life, have walked by a hungry person, failed to clothe a naked person, or not visited someone in prison?" Slowly, all the sisters raised their hands. Dennis said,"That's too bad. You're all goats."
The sisters looked worried and perplexed. Then suddenly one very old sister's hand shot up. She blurted out,
"I get it! We're all good goats!"

A contradiction in terms, or an accurate reflection of the reality of life? I'm not going to make us all thoroughly uncomfortable by repeating the questions here – but it's fair to say that in my experience very few of us are wholly good or wholly bad. As we strive to follow in the steps of Christ we can become more conscious of our own failures, so that sheep are more aware of the times when they behave like goats., and as Paul reminds us, “all fall short”…but there are times when we get things quite wonderfully right as well.

So perhaps what divides sheep and goats is not so much behaviour as motivation…They may set out to follow the same shepherd, but what happens along the way? What's behind their behaviour? 
It all comes down to the kind of King we're following.

If you've a few spare moments when you get home, ask google images to show you some suggestions for “Christ the King”. There's quite a range, -Ultra pious, rather saccharine depictions of the Infant of Prague, unexpected links to church buildings and a whole galaxy of icons, from across the Orthodox Tradition. Most feature a predictably regal Christ - crowned, on the throne, and often bearing orb and sceptre. This is the king beloved of hymnody, the king "all glorious above"whom we'll be singing of through Advent...but I'm not sure that this is the king of today's gospel.
Oh yes, he's present at the start of the reading
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.
This is the court of judgement ...the place where we will hear our final destiny...Tremble in awe
But if we aspire to belong to the kingdom right now, then there are more important truths for us to hear today, more important even than the verdict on our lives...
To live in a kingdom is about far more than standing to wonder at the majesty of the king at his final grand entrance...and we may be in real danger of missing the essence of both kingdom and king if we focus too much on the set-piece, deus ex machina moments that will complete our personal drama.
We should not be driven, not even for a moment, by fear.

Our King is rather different.

If we want to live in the kingdom, then Christ the king is the one who sets the standards, who shows us what kingdom life will be life.
Christ, who chooses to spend his time with the marginalised, the oppressed, the forgotten.
Christ who is utterly committed to those whom nobody values, nobody respects,
Christ who identifies himself só completely with “the least of these” that when we look at them, we know we are seeing him too.
The hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the prisoner...
People who NEED us, who need very specific care – not just a generalised expression of good will...
People we probably won't be at ease with, people who may demand things that we find it very hard to deliver.
People we might not like, but are called to love.
People in whose faces we should expect to see the face of Christ.

Thomas Merton observed that the kingdom of God is not one that preaches a particular doctrine or follows certain religious practices, it is the kingdom of those who love. That's what lies at the heart of our parable – and at the heart of the kingdom.
The great commandments of Love.

To love our King is to love what he has made...children, men and women, joyous,broken, hopeful or despairing...
To love our neighbours is to love the One in whose image they,we, are made...and to recognise the divine image not on stamps or coins but in their faces, wherever we encounter them.

That's what it means to be true to the love, and love again.
The DNA of King and kingdom are that Bonhoeffer's question
 'how may Christ take form among us today & here?' is both a mystery to be solved – as we look for Christ among those whom we encounter – and a challenge to be embraced as we consider how we can BE Christ...
Two sides of one coin,
We may not realise, in our active loving, that we are serving Christ – and só the parable offers a wonderful surprise for those who didn't recognise that in loving service of the outcast they were offering loving service to the king...
But those with ears to hear are given insider knowledge in this parable, that if we want to serve the king we will inevitably HAVE to offer loving service to the outcast.

You see, there is, in essence, just one commandment, the commandment of love, and real love is always manifested in action. And, when it comes down to it, it is living lives of love that will build the kingdom of God here on earth.
We aren't asked to decide who might be sheep or goats...all we are asked to do is to carry on loving – wildly, indiscriminately, just as Christ our King does.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Shaking up the story - the parable of the talents reconsidered. A sermon for the 2nd Sunday before Advent Yr A at The Risen Christ, Wyken

I wonder where you are in the story”

That's always my favourite question whenever I sit down to prepare a sermon. Sometimes, with a passage we know as well as this one, it can help us to see past the layers of familiarity and find something new in even the most familiar text. 
It certainly helped me this time round, when I found myself relating very definitely to the over-cautious slave – the one who was so fearful of his domineering master that he buried his talent in the ground...I know myself well enough to suspect that if I had a boss like his, I'd be so scared of doing the wrong thing that I'd hesitate to do anything at all - which, when you look at the final verse we've heard, is a rather terrifying prospect.
But then, it seems to me that there's an awful lot of fear in this story...even before we get to the weeping and gnashing of teeth. 
Not surprising, with a boss like that around.
And yet, we've just agreed “This is the gospel of the Lord”.
Good news, apparently.


I guess the problem comes if we try to read this as an allegory, and not a parable. Allegories have a consistent one to one equation – for example, the lion, Aslan, is ALWAYS the Christ figure in C S Lewis's Narnia books. 
Parables are quite different...stories designed to help us to think about the big questions and concepts of faith in ways that are firmly rooted in everyday reality...but stories that demand that we work at them, without an easy code to follow.

So, - how does this parable fit in with our understanding of God? 
Surely he can't be anything LIKE the master we hear about in the story..the greedy, vindictive and abusive character who is so quick to condemn.
Ah – yes – that's the point. 
It's a PARABLE not an allegory, remember!
We are NOT expected to make that equation of God and master. 
How could we? 
There's nothing of God in this description of an absentee landlord who doesn't do any work himself, but lives off of the labour of his slaves, looking for maximum profit no matter what the cost...
Surely we've learned enough about God's infinite mercy to recognise this. Rather than reaping where he does not sow and gathering where he did not scatter, he is recklessly generous in pouring his resources out, regardless of our tendency to ignore them. 
In fact, it would be hard to imagine anyone less like the God we meet in Christ than the master in this parable.

So what is this story about, then? If it's not about appeasing a tyrannical Lord, nor about using the abilities God gave us (these talents are money - not a gift for singing or making cakes)..?

I think the nub of it all lies in verse 29: "to all who have, more will be given, but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” - or in other words "the rich get rich and the destitute lose everything."


Now, that really IS frightening – not least because it's more than a wee bit familiar, if we dare to enage with the social commentators at work today. It can seem to be very close to the principle our society is working on...and it couldn't be less like the kingdom of God.

So – if piling on the profits come what may is NOT a sign of the kingdom, what should we be aiming for. As so often, it's frustrating to find ourselves with a passage isolated from its context. May I invite you, when you get home, to spend a few moments reading what comes next in Matthew's gospel – the prophesy of the sheep and the goats, where we learn that when the Son of Man comes, judgement will not be given on the basis of how much money we made, nor for that matter on how religious we were but rather on whether we cared for the least of our sisters and brothers in the human family. 
We serve Jesus himself to the extent that we feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the imprisoned...and we neglect Jesus himself to the extent that we don't.

So – let's try our parable again. It's nothing to do with making the most of your gifts, whether lavish or limited...Instead it's about looking hard at a world in which the rich get rich and the poor get poorer...because that world is NOTHING like God's kingdom. The world in which greedy, exploitative bosses impose a reign of terror on their slaves is not the one we are promised. That world is passing away even now, and Jesus will bring his work to completion; God's kingdom will come and God's will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Do you believe that? And if so, do you have the courage to live as if that world is already challenge the demands of those who would try to ensalve us to worldy standards by telling us that our security lies in amassing resources for ourselves no matter what?
It's not easy...It's genuinely counter-cultural...but we're kingdom people, and that's how we must live.

And as we inch toward Advent, let's look for the signs that Jesus was right, that the Spirit is living and moving, active in the world. This week we have been celebrating 25 years since the Berlin Wall came down. That was quite a moment! People were dancing in the streets and even on the Wall itself as that symbol of division was destroyed; they went home clutching graffiti-covered chips as souvenirs of an amazing event. It was the fulfilment of a dream and a hope, a moment when history changed gear, the moment of a lifetime, even. In 8 days time, Ali and I are going with a group to explore how life in Berlin since has lived up to that high point, to hear at first hand the stories of reconciliation and hope that have flourished there amid the wreckage of the old order. Tremendous!But, you know, I believe that something even bigger and better is on its way – and we need to look out for it.
We're looking for the coming of the Kingdom, remember.

So, where are you in the story? 
And where would you like to be?
I'm choosing to step out of it altogether.
Perhaps you'd care to join me and challenge the world that we see here. Let's not be the fearful slave, but dare to take a kingdom risk...the risk of living by kingdom values here and now, as we wait for its dawning reality.